The Emotional Puzzle of a Shared Universe

A lot of the most powerful storytelling happens in the moments between scenes, the pieces we put together to fill the gaps. If someone has died and then we see a relative rebuilding in the aftermath, we fill in the trauma of loss. When the happy couple ride off into the sunset, we feel happy for their future life together.

In a shared creative universe, there are even more of those gaps.

There are lots of shared creative universes out there. From the half-dozen interlinked Star Trek shows to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the insane sprawl of DC Comics, they’re something most people are exposed to. Maybe you just dip in and enjoy a little of what they offer, but for the hardcore fan, they’re a rich treasure trove. The more you consume of a single universe, the more of those gaps and connections you see. You fill them in through imagination, conversations, and fanfic, exponentially expanding that universe.

I used to think that the satisfaction in this was comparable with referencing in other parts of our culture. Looked at this way, recognising a Captain America character’s cameo in Ant-Man is like spotting a reference to Shakespeare in Stoppard – the satisfaction is all about feeling smart. You’re in on the reference. You’re part of the game.

But I now think that there’s more to it than that. Because these references exist within a continuity, there’s an extra layer of emotional meaning that those Shakespeare references don’t have. We’re not just recognising Agent Carter as a character from another film. We’re seeing how she’s aged, learning some of what she’s been through over the years, filling in gaps in her story. We feel for her. High culture references, with their focus on intellectual satisfaction, don’t do that.

Marvel’s Infinity War is full of this. It pulls in characters from so many other films, while leaving their familiar families and friends out. By the end, it only takes the slightest drift of imagination to start filling gaps elsewhere in this world, with tragic results. I’ve seen reviews that say the film is accessible to a Marvel outsider, but for someone who has been following these films, its impact stretches on and on.

I’m not arguing for the superiority of shared universes. Like any form of culture, they have advantages and disadvantages, can be good or bad. But their references have an extra layer of meaning that some others don’t. They don’t just hit you in the thoughts. They hit you in the feels.

Bringing Together Two Stories – Agents of SHIELD Vs Daredevil

When you’re creating something as sprawling as Marvel’s superhero screen efforts, there are going to be inconsistencies. Still, it’s strange to see the lower prestige show Agents of SHIELD get something right that Netflix blockbuster Daredevil got wrong.

Season four of AoS and season two of Daredevil share a similar structure. Two plot strands are built up. One dominates the first half of the season. It’s then resolved and the other strand emerges to take centre stage. They sort of connect up in the end, but not in a massively substantial way. There’s some thematic resonance, but it’s a little strained.

Watching Daredevil, this left me disappointed by the payoff. Finishing AoS the other night, I felt satisfied. So how did the usually less impressive show get it right?

It might partly be about expectations. I expect great things from a Netflix Marvel show, with its high production values and careful approach to storytelling. AoS is more of a broadcast TV adventure-of-the-week phenomenon. Relatively speaking, it takes less effort to look impressive there.

But I don’t think it’s just that. I think that the writers on AoS also did a better job of managing my response to their story. They made it clear that a climax was coming for the Ghostrider story. They gave the follow-up arc with Aida higher stakes. They carefully and naturally made me care about that arc in advance. They gave it an interesting novelty, in the form of an alternate reality, that kept me engaged. And when they brought the plotlines back together, they did it in a way that made it feel important.

Daredevil is still a more powerful show, but in resolving these seasons AoS made better use of what it had and deserves credit for it.

Structure is important in storytelling, and sometimes the nuance of how you use it can make all the difference.

Black Lightning: A Superhero Who Makes Sense

I love superhero stories. I watch the films, I read the comics, I binge the shows. There are pictures of Spiderman, the Hulk and Captain America on my living room wall. But even I have to admit, superheroes don’t often make sense.

Take Batman. I love Batman, but Bruce Wayne’s vigilante antics aren’t the best thing he could do for Gotham. If Bruce Wayne invested all that time and money into supporting the police, the authorities would be able to handle the supervillains. On top of that, cops wouldn’t waste time hunting him down. His city would be a better place if he didn’t make it about him.

A lot of stories have tried to solve this problem. Superpowered villains are used to balance superpowered heroes. Writers roll out awkward arguments about accountability and authority. Sometimes someone creates something unusual, like Warren Ellis’s politically charged run on The Authority. But there’s always a drift towards the status quo. A superhero acts outside a system that’s assumed to be just, and a minute’s thought shows that this isn’t a good thing.

Not so in Black Lightning,  the latest TV show based on a DC comic. The protagonist is African-American and a leader in his community. The show highlights inequalities of race in the United States. The system, built out of law, economic interests, and social attitudes, is rigged against him and the people he loves. And thanks to that, his story makes sense. As Bradon O’Brien cogently argued on Tor.comBlack Lightning reflects the experience of black America in a way other superheroes don’t. It’s an experience that cries out for justice the system can’t provide.

In some ways, this harks back to the origins of Superman as a left-leaning character looking out for the downtrodden workers. But it’s more than that. It’s a show that takes an injustice baked into western society and offers a superhero as a symptom, if not a cure. The character of Black Lightning doesn’t go around calling for radical reform, but his life shows why it’s needed.

Sure, creators have prodded at this combination of ideas before. But this is the first time it’s been so thoroughly explored on screen, where superheroes reach a wider audience. And for that, it’s both an interesting and an important show.

“Why We Fight” – Getting a Story’s Name Just Right

One of the hardest parts of writing a story is finding a good name. It should evoke atmosphere, draw attention, maybe even add something more to the meaning of the tale. I don’t find a title I like even half the times I write. So when a story does it really well, that’s worth looking at.

“Why We Fight”, the ninth episode of historical drama miniseries Band of Brothers, has one of the most perfectly chosen titles I’ve ever found. It evokes the tone of the episode, draws the audience into the characters’ minds, and adds nuance to the uncomfortable issues present.

Like all of Band of Brothers, “Why We Fight” follows Easy Company, an American paratroop unit taking part in the Second World WarThis episode focuses on Captain Lewis Nixon, while also showing the experiences of other characters.

It’s late in the war. The company are fighting their way across Germany. They’ve lost a lot of people and they’ve seen a lot of destruction. Most of them look battered and weary.

Nixon might be one of the weariest. He’s missed out on fighting thanks to a command liaison job, but has still seen the hellish side of war. Now he’s battling with the bottle and been booted back to a combat post. His wife writes to say that she’s leaving him. Nixon, who we first met as someone bright and charming, is falling apart. He fights with others because of the toll the war has taken on him.

Meanwhile, a new man joins the squad. He’s never seen combat. He’s eager to do his part and to see action while he still can. He wants to fight because it seems noble and heroic, while the men around him fight on because that’s their job. The innocence was long ago knocked out of them.

During the first half of the episode, this is how the question of “Why We Fight” is addressed. It’s all about individual motives and personalities.

Then comes the moment that changes everything, both for Easy Company and for the viewer. A group of soldiers stumble across a sight of such horror that they don’t have words for it. We seem them standing stunned, unable to comprehend what lies before them. A few minutes later, the truth is revealed to viewers, most of whom must already have guessed.

Easy Company have found a concentration camp.

Suddenly, the meaning of the episode is turned on its head. Now, when we ask “Why We Fight”, we’re talking about why these nations have gone to war, why the horrors of the Nazi regime had to be faced. “Aha!” thinks the viewer, myself included the first time around. “This is why they fight. To stop the Holocaust.”

But that reaction digs out a deeper, less comfortable truth.

The Holocaust was one of the defining features of the Second World War, a process of nearly unparalleled evil. Yet we’re on episode nine out of ten of Band of Brothers and it’s only just been mentioned. Why?

Because the Holocaust is not “Why We Fight”.

The Allies fought against Nazi Germany for many reasons. Out of self-interest. To protect friendly nations. To stop a relentlessly aggressive regime. But to stop the Holocaust? No.

When they entered the war, Allied leaders didn’t know how bad things were under the Nazis. They had no way of knowing how bad they would become as the war progressed. In 1942, when reports reached them through the Polish government in exile, they chose not to publicise the attrocities. They were afraid that no-one would believe them and that there would be a backlash against the extreme claims.

An argument can be made that the Allies fought to stop evil regimes. Their actions certainly had the effect of ending the Holocaust. But the death camps and the horrors they represented were not “Why We Fight”.

And so the name of this episode draws attention not just to the struggles of Easy Company, but to our own struggle with the past. The fact that the Allies ended something so evil lets us paint the Second World War in black and white. But just like the soldiers who stand stunned in the face of that concentration camp, our governments didn’t know what they were facing when they went to war. They didn’t fight to stop this. That they did so was a happy side effect, if the word “happy” can ever be used here.

This is why “Why We Fight” is the perfect name for this story. It gives us an angle from which to consider what the characters are going through. It provides a lever with which to open up our own perceptions, to face questions about the past and about how we view it.

Story titles don’t get more fitting than that.

A Different Sort of Devil

The Devil has spoken to me. Appearing out of books, comics, and TV shows, he’s there wherever I look. And he has a single consistent message.

He says that he’s not such a bad guy after all.

Evil Incarnate

Most of us know the classic version of the Devil, drawn out of the theology of Abrahamic religions. He’s the ultimate embodiment of evil, a force for darkness tempting us to do wrong. His story didn’t feature much in my liberal religious upbringing, but I knew about him from the surrounding culture. He was evil personified.

This is a Devil to fit a binary universe. Good and evil are sharply differentiated and clearly defined. God and Satan represent that division and show us two different, entirely incompatible paths. A black and white world.

The Devil You Know

But now, when I’m more exposed to images of the devil than ever before, they’re very different from that old school Satan.

There’s the Lucifer of Gillen and McKelvie’s The Wicked + the Divine, one stylish god out of a dozen, more concerned with a good time than with changing humanity’s fate.

There’s Morningstar in Alliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, looking out for his followers amid a tangle of dark politics.

There’s the Lucifer of the TV show, as adapted from the comic books of the same name. The comic version is a metaphysical rebel, the small screen one a playful rogue. There are temptations and deals with the devil, but they’re using about having fun, not bringing ruin.

The Devil I hear calling out from me from these stories seems pretty reasonable. So has he completely changed?

Lost and Found

That probably depends on what you mean by “changed”.

Milton’s Paradise Lost first popularised sympathy for the Devil. His Satan was a baddy, but he was a sympathetic one. He had more reason for his actions than “this is the embodiment of badness”. Milton might have argued that what he showed was implicit in the old texts, that a more nuanced Satan was waiting to be found. True or not, it’s a theme that many others have run with.

In the modern world, many of us are uncomfortable with clear-cut truths. The horrors of two world wars, followed by the philosophical wrecking ball of postmodernism, showed us a world that isn’t divided into black and white. We see rebellion as a good thing, not a danger to society and our souls. And once the Devil starts looking like a hero, it’s not a big stretch to these modern portrayals. His interest in pleasure, defiance, and even temptation can become liberating virtues. This Devil is on our side.

All the Angels

I’m sure people are still writing stories with the old version of the fallen angel. After all, there are people who believe in old-school Old Testament Christianity. But they aren’t the mainstream anymore, and so neither is their Lucifer. A new version calls out to us from page and screen. Apparently, he’s not such a bad guy.

But then, that is what he would say, isn’t it?

Remembering What Something Once Stood For

I’ve been rewatching a lot of the sitcom Friends recently. It popped up on Netflix and, as a show that meant a lot to me at a key point in my life, it evokes a warm sense of nostalgia. So episode by episode I’ve been working my way through the adventures of a bunch of privileged 1990s New Yorkers.

Friends has gotten a lot of flack in recent years, and not unreasonably so. Half the humour is based on gender stereotypes. There’s some not very funny stuff about a character once being fat. Ross turns from a sympathetic nerd into a whiny tosspot whose scenes I regularly skip. There’s a lot here that hasn’t aged well.

But there are other things that were fantastic, given the context this show was made in. This was the show that put a lesbian wedding on primetime TV. It showed both men and women enjoying and talking about their sex lives without stigma. It tackled issues of infertility and divorce, not always maturely, but at least with sympathy. As someone coming of age in the 1990s, this was a huge deal. It helped set a more enlightened tone for the coming century.

I’m not holding up Friends as some kind of beacon of progress. But it had its moments, and it’s good to see them again.

Star Trek Discovery – Does the Payoff Justify the Buildup?

The new Star Trek show, Discovery, has been more than a little divisive. Some fans love it, some hate it. Its very different tone and storytelling from previous Treks either delights or appals, depending on your point of view. But one response has been near-universal – excitement at recent episodes.

These episodes have taken the show and its character in surprising and dramatic directions. Viewers who liked it are more excited than ever. Those who disliked it are being won around. It’s gone from something I was happy enough to watch to something I’m excited for every week. Story decisions that didn’t work before, like using the first two episodes as a prologue, are proving important.

Does this payoff justify the problems with the buildup? I’m not sure. I’ll certainly look at those earlier episodes in a more positive light. But seeing these recent episodes, I feel like the writers could have done better than they did from the start, while still providing the setup they wanted.

The Wire had a slow start, only becoming truly gripping halfway through the first season, and it’s now considered a groundbreaking TV classic. Will Discovery do the same thing within sf? I’m not convinced, but the payoff is still coming, and you never know

Gilmore Girls and Portraying Motivation

In my last blog post, I talked about character motivation in terms of pirates and economics. Today I want to look at it from a softer angle.

I’ve been watching a lot of Gilmore Girls, the early 2000s TV drama of fast dialogue, family angst, and failed romance. It’s cute and relaxing. It’s also very good at portraying the irrationality of human motives.

Pretty much every episode, a character will have several issues going on in their life. One thing will get them frustrated. They’ll carry this frustration into the next scene. They won’t deal with the issue there as well as they could have done because their emotions are already in knots.

It’s fantastic storytelling, because it makes sense on a human level and because it’s clear to the audience even though it isn’t explained. Anyone can join the dots from one incident to the next. It means that smart characters can act stupid, ensuring that conflict happens, without undermining the audience’s affection for these characters.

It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you like smartly written characters, or you want to study what drives human drama, I can’t recommend this one enough.

Guilty Pleasures

The very ideas of guilty pleasures is a weird one. I mean, pleasure is subjective. Different people like different things. In the modern world, shouldn’t we be OK with people just saying “I like this”, as long as no-one else gets hurt?

Yet there are pleasures I feel I have to justify. Listening to Taylor Swift. Watching The Ranch. Roleplaying. Things that don’t do any harm but have a particular image around their cultural value.

The very use of the phrase “guilty pleasure” stigmatises these harmless choices. Yet if I don’t start explaining, I feel like I’m going to be judged.

I suppose the solution is to stop worrying about being judged for liking things. But that’s a hard habit to break.

In the meantime, I’m off to watch Ashton Kutcher be a rancher. I know it sounds bad, but the cast are excellent, the show’s got these lovely moments, and – No! No explaining! I love it. Outside of a critical discussion, isn’t that enough?

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – An American Sort of Weird

I love Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently books. His weird stories of an offbeat detective and his surreal methods are my favourite Adams work, even in a world where The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy exists. So I was intrigued to see what happened when the Americans turned it into a TV show.

Turns out they’ve done a decent job. To me, this feels like it gets the surreal tone and crazy connections of the books. Dirk is just as exasperating as you’d expect, though in a less whimsically British way. The adventures might lean a little heavily toward action at times, but they still feel like Dirk’s sort of adventures.

There’s some Americanising here, or perhaps modern-TV-show-ising. It’s not enough for Dirk to just have strange methods. Instead he’s the escaped product of some government-backed scheme that has unleashed a bunch of psychically powered people into the world. I can’t say that feels like a good fit for an Adams story to me, but all the characters coming out of it do. Sure, I’d rather that Dirk was just a man with an unexpected method that works against the odds, but I’ll accept this change in return for the holistic assassin and the crazy guys in the van.

Honestly, I don’t know how well fans are responding to this – I haven’t dared look. But I liked it. Whether you’ve read the books or not, I think it’s worth a look.